Before I begin, let me just say that if you haven't played either of the first Pokemon Black and White games, don't read this review and go pick one of them up. Black and White reinvented the Pokemon series by practically starting from scratch, using only new Pokemon for the main game. This allowed the developers to completely fix the balance issues from the previous games. Black and White didn't only reinvent the series gameplay wise, but cinematic wise as well. The Unova region is filled with architecture that makes everything feel grand, with neat camera angles and atmospheric music at its side. But by far the most important reinvention that took place in Black and White was the story. The morality of Pokemon training is questioned, leading to a thought-provoking adventure full of well-defined characters and loads of twists along the way. I can honestly say that playing through Pokemon Black for the first time was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had with a video game. Whether you're new to the series or not, it will make you go "wow."
Black and White's story was so expansive that director Junichi Masuda decided it couldn't be completely held in one-err, two games. Thus, instead of getting a third version of the main games like we got with the previous gens, we got full-on sequels. Do Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 excel as sequels and, more importantly, games?... By the way, I'm going to refer to only Black 2 for the rest of the review for simplicity's sake. It's not like White 2 is all that different.
Perhaps I should discuss the game's story before anything else, seeing as the story was arguably the most important thing about Black 1. Black 2 takes place two years after the events of Black 1. Our new hero (depending on your gender, either a kid with weird hair or a kid with weird hair) embarks on a quest to become the champion. But along the way, he and his friend/rival/mostly friend get pulled into the messy aftermath of Team Plasma's downfall. Neo Team Plasma, followers of their monstrous Lord Ghetsis, are carrying out a new plan now that their cover has been blown involving the mysterious third dragon Kyurem. Aided by the allies of past heroes, a moralless man named Colress, and the remaining members of the old Team Plasma who are still for the liberation of Pokemon, our hero must fight to retain harmony between truth and ideals.
Seeing as Ghetsis's true intentions have been revealed, all he can do now is act rather than plan. Instead of manipulating people's emotions to get what he wants, Ghetsis now tries to conquer Unova by force. Unfortunately, this means that there is no need to explore Team Plasma's intentions any further, seeing as the members of Team Plasma who genuinely wanted to free Pokemon are no longer in the same pack. Neo Team Plasma is basically just Team Rocket. That's not to say the story is bad; in fact, during the climax, everything comes together quite smoothly without seeming cliche. However, that brings me to my next criticism: the pacing of the story doesn't quite work. Because there's so little left to explore with Neo Team Plasma, they hardly do anything before the climax. For more than the first half of the main game, Neo Team Plasma is there, but... that's really all they are. There. You get to fight them a few times, but the battles aren't a result of nor do they lead to any important reveals. Even after they become somewhat relevant to the plot, they still don't really do anything until the climax. It feels like they hijacked the story more than anything. Then again, there really isn't a story without Neo Team Plasma. You could say that the story took a backseat to the basic "beat eight gyms to get to the Elite Four" structure just like in Gold and Silver. However, unlike Gold and Silver, Black 2 has an actual story to tell; it just ignores it. This story could have come in the form of Colress's character development.
Colress is marketed as the N of the game. He's a morally confused character who just so happens to have a lot of power. However, instead of being deceived as to what's black and what's white, Colress is simply grey. He doesn't believe in anything, he is not for anything, and he is not against anything. The story could've put more focus on the way someone who wasn't for any side affected and was affected by the conflict between good and evil. Unfortunately, just like Neo Team Plasma, Colress hardly does anything until near the end of the main story. The outcome of the story really is amazing, but it would've been so much better if it had actually been developed to that point rather than just jumping there after hours of nothing.
Still, there's one thing I have to praise about the story before the climax, and that's the characters. It is very fun discovering what has become of each character in the past two years, because every single one of them has something new to contribute. Bianca and Cheren in particular are handled quite well, aiding your character while contributing realistic opinions on the world of Pokemon, showing off what they learned from their past journey as well as learning more from their current one. There's also Ghetsis. I don't want to spoil anything, so all I'll say is that the reveal from the last game really affected him. The new characters are also very cool. While Colress definitely needed more focus, he still manages to be one of the most intriguing characters in the entire series. Your rival is also unique in that his goal isn't to simply become the very best like most Pokemon trainers' goals are, rather he's actually fighting for someone he cares about. The random NPCs scattered all over the game also deserve a mention for often times being surprisingly deep. An elder discussing his fear of leaving their Pokemon behind when they die and young man pondering whether or not his Pokemon hate him for making them battle are just a few examples of the interesting NPCs in this game.
Now onto the gameplay. This game perfects the Pokemon formula even better than its predecessor did. Black 1 put the developers on the right track to create a supremely well-built and balanced Regional Pokedex for its sequel. The regional dex has 300 well-chosen Pokemon of varying types and stats. With the help of the awesome new Habitat feature that lets you scout for uncaught and unseen Pokemon all over the Unova Region (along with effort and perseverance, of course), you'll be able to build a unique and diverse team in no time. You also don't have to worry about NPC levels that stay static for too long or go up too quickly; the difficulty of each fight depends on several different factors like who you're fighting and where you're at in the game. Everything always feels fair (well, aside from a few NPCs who have evolved Pokemon that shouldn't have evolved yet, but that's more the developers cheating to keep things balanced rather than the NPCs cheating) whilst still providing a challenge.
If I had to name one flaw in Black 1, that flaw would be the lack of content. While the main game is fantastic, there's not much to do after you finish it. That all changes with Black 2. Even during the main game you're introduced to plenty of new features. One of them is the Pokemon World Tournament, where you can participate in all kinds of different battles against trainers from every generation of Pokemon. Another is PokeStar studios, where you and your Pokemon can act in movies. It's mostly a shallow time waster, although some of the finished movies actually become surprisingly deep if you "fail" them. Another is one I know certain fans will especially appreciate: Join Avenue. Here, you get to manage your own mall, recruiting NPCs and friends (mostly NPCs) to run shops and direct customers to shops you think they would like. The more customers a shop gets, the more stock it earns. Not only is Join Avenue addictive, it's also a meta-gamer's heaven. Plenty of shops have items and services that up or take away a Pokemon's EVs as well as items and services that raise a Pokemon's level. There are also shops where you can dig up rare items like evolutionary stones and shops where you can win useful but normally unsold items like Max Revives and, if you're the luckiest person in the world, a Master Ball. If you've never challenged yourself to create the ultimate Pokemon team before, now's a better time than ever.
Then there's the post-game. Usually after I beat the champion in a Pokemon game, I gradually slip away from the game. However, this game has really held on to me; I've been playing for 60 hours even though I beat the Champion at 40, and it still feels like there's loads more to find. There are tons of sidequests where you can learn more about Unova and its citizens as well as battle the best of the best (there are more bonus bosses in this game than ever before) and catch most of the legendary Pokemon that have been introduced to the series thus far. Something I didn't like about the post-game though was that it didn't let you transfer Pokemon from Black 1 to it. The third versions of Pokemon games don't usually let you transfer Pokemon from the first two versions, but Black 2 is a sequel, not a typical third version.
Aside from the transferring (which has more to do with the game's dependence than structure), Black 2 got the Pokemon formula right on practically every level. It did so well with the formula that eventually I started looking for inherent flaws in the Pokemon formula rather than things Black 2 got wrong within the Pokemon formula. When you get down to it, everything in Black 2 revolves around battling. While Pokemon's battle structure is still more solid than the battle structures of most RPGs, I'm starting to think the series relies on its battle system a little too much. Overworld puzzles do show up every now and then, but not as much as they should, and even when they do they hardly shake things up. There are almost never any unexpected gameplay changes; you always know that your next challenge is simply going to be a Pokemon battle. I understand the main charm of Pokemon is the way you have to raise your own team of Pokemon with varying strengths and weaknesses in order to advance, and it certainly hasn't stopped being fun. However, now that Black 2 has perfected the formula, I think Game Freak has to change up the gameplay a bit to keep advancing the series. They don't have to change the battle structure too much or at all, really; they just need to rely on it less.
Now, what about Black 2's presentation? The overworld graphics are generally the same as they were in Black 1. However, the battle graphics are improved a bit. Backgrounds look slightly more atmospheric, but more notably, regular NPC Pokemon trainers now have battle animations. Pretty cool. But now I've gotta talk about the soundtrack. Black 2 tries very hard to break the musical boundaries set by past Pokemon games, and it succeeds to great effect. Many of the songs have lyrics, others sound like they're played by actual instruments, and others sound like something you wouldn't expect out of MIDI nor an actual instrument. With hundreds of songs new and old (most of the old ones are remixed to match the new songs' awesomeness), the soundtrack greatly aides in giving characters and areas personality as well as making your adventure feel all the more grand. It's easy to say that Black 2 has the greatest soundtrack the Pokemon series has seen so far.
So, now to address the question everyone is probably asking: Is Black 2 better than Black 1? In terms of gameplay and music refinement, 2 definitely trumps 1. However, it can't be ignored that 2 takes much of its world from 1. 1 is a game that made me go "wow" every few seconds. It was amazing seeing through the atmospheric camera angles on Skyarrow Bridge for the first time. It was awesome seeing my Pokemon actually animated for the first time. It was shocking seeing the story formula broken for the first time. It was beautiful hearing "Tasogare Oyagi" on Village Bridge for the first time. In 2, the "wow" factor is gone. That's not to say 2 was irrelevant. 2 takes the experience that is 1 and builds it into a thoroughly solid game. 2 definitely serves well as a sequel, advancing what its predecessor introduced up to perfection.
If you're a Pokemon fan, you will adore Pokemon Black 2. You may be a bit disappointed by the story, but you'll love seeing just how perfectly the game refines almost every little feature introduced by past games in the series. Technically speaking, Black 2 is the best Pokemon game there is.
So Game Freak, where do you go from here?